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Opening Gambit

Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Complete Chess team stands in classroom.

(From right) Rachel Lawson '18, Bob Le '18, Camden Lemond '20, Jesse Lozano, and Alex Ferdkoff are making bold moves with Complete Chess

Trinity startup, Complete Chess, breathes new life into a classic game

by Jeremy Gerlach

In an age where mobile games dominate app stores and attention spans, a Trinity startup is launching a daring, real-world counterattack that doesn’t involve virtual grenade launchers or Nazi zombies:

Chess.

That’s the name of the game for Hoang (Bob) Le ’18, a computer science graduate from Vietnam, and Camden Lemond ’20, an English major from Austin. Together, along with a team of other Trinity students and area masters of the game, Le and Lemond say their educational startup, Complete Chess, is poised to “unplug” thousands of area kids by hooking them on the world’s original real-time strategy game.

“We want to create a culture of playing chess in San Antonio, and we believe that kids are going to keep coming back to this game,” Le says. “We teach kids critical thinking, problem solving, and these same kids love to compete—they love playing with other kids, and we give them a chance to use the lessons we’re teaching them… right away.”

Le and Lemond, both lifelong chess players, bill Complete Chess as “the complete solution to everything related to the game.” This startup, founded by Le and area chess masters Jesse James Lozano and Alexander “Sasha” Ferdkoff during the fall 2017 semester, offers coaching, lessons, camps, scholastic tournaments and other resources to area youth. The business even has its own location on De Zavala road on San Antonio’s Northwest Side, but also sends its coaching staff out to area schools and community centers for additional programming.

Complete Chess team stands with giant cheque

Complete Chess, fresh off a $5,000 award in the opening round of Trinity Entrepreneurship’s annual Stumberg Venture Competition, is currently in the midst of Trinity’s summer accelerator program. That means Le, Lemond, and Rachel Lawson ’18, Complete Chess’ director of marketing and communications, are all in town for the summer, keeping the business humming during the break and making big plans to expand, all under the guidance and support of Trinity’s extensive entrepreneurship network.

“This is the first year the business has been active, and we’ve already had about 16 coaches working with more than 350 kids at 18 different schools, so we’re already generating revenue,” says Le, who’s also helping Lemond and the rest of the Complete Chess team manage an ongoing, 10-week summer camp for about 30 more students. “Now, we want to expand to 60 schools in the fall, and with that comes hiring about 20 more coaches.”

As one of five Stumberg finalists in Trinity Entrepreneurship’s summer accelerator program, the Complete Chess team gets to stay on campus, and earns an additional $4,000 stipend—all to work and hone their business model.

“There’s such a good community of entrepreneurs right here on campus,” Lemond says. “Right now, we’re all staying on the same hall together, eating and cooking together; and we’ve got mentors and alumni around, too.”

Jesse Lozano teaches two kids chess

The group has also constructed its own network of top San Antonio chess talent, including Lozano, who currently stands as San Antonio’s highest-rated chess player, and serves as Complete Chess’ CEO. Ultimately, Le says this staff is one of the strongest draws for the business in terms of helping students advance their skill rating, which is managed at the national level by the U.S. Chess Federation.

But for Lemond, the game also goes beyond the numbers. Lemond, who’s worked mostly with youth from the Hebrew Language Academy so far, says Complete Chess’ take on education is a far cry from his “mild and monotonous” experience with chess growing up.

“The first few times I taught a class, I was actually really shocked because the kids we’d work with are so energetic,” Lemond says. “They’re excited to play this game, and they’re coming into the classroom with a passion to learn and to compete with their fellow classmates. It’s a time for them to unwind from all the stress at school, and they don’t even realize it sometimes, but they’re still becoming smarter, and developing strategic thinking and problem solving skills.”

A typical lesson under Complete Chess’ curriculum, Lemond continues, unfolds as follows:

Kids walk into the classroom, settle down, take off their backpacks, and set up their chess boards by themselves. Then, Complete Chess coaches at the front of the group lead a short, interactive lesson that keeps kids engaged and on their toes. The team works through a variety of opening moves, strategies, and even famous games from historic chess masters—all while inviting the students to make their own analysis step-by-step.

“We’re asking them, ‘What’s the threat if we make this move? How do you respond to an opponent if they make this choice?” Lemond says. “So, soon they’ll start seeing this game is just a series of smaller puzzles that make up a bigger puzzle.”

“And the more of these smaller puzzles you solve,” Le adds, “You start to see their confidence, their creativity come out.”

For Complete Chess, the biggest puzzle remaining may still be the one they’ve faced from day one: how can chess compete with flashier, digital pursuits?

Kids play chess at table

But Le is always thinking several steps ahead.

“Chess isn’t just a game,” he says. “The skills you can pick up playing, they can lead you to better grades, college…”

Lemond chimes in: “This can be a gateway to a better life.”

Complete Chess is one of five Stumberg finalists who’ll be competing for a $25,000 grand prize in seed money at the Louis H. Stumberg Venture competition’s final round this October. Find more about these five teams at Trinity’s Facebook page and online at new.trinity.edu.